AN ANGEL, OUR HERO, WE LOVE HER:
I'm about to be 30 in November, and I'm freaking OUT about my boyfriend, life, all of it. I've been going to therapy to work on managing my anxiety and emotional...volatility? intensity? and it helps a bit, but I have an issue that feels too scary to bring up to my therapist (yet) and too embarrassing/pathetic to bring up to my friends (a me problem, not a my-friends problem. They are wonderful!)
The biggest thing I've fixated on right now is whether or not my boyfriend (36M) and I are compatible and should commit to each other for the long term. We've been living together for just over a year, dating for a bit over 2 years--before we moved in together, we had a couple of vague conversations where we were both like "I am Very Serious about you!!" I knew at the time that I should ask him about marriage and his plans for the future, but I got scared and failed to ask.
Our day-to-day life is overall really comfortable and good: we each had a cat from before our relationship started, and they both get along great in our shared home; he does the dishes ALWAYS even when I've gone on a super intense cooking/baking spree (and other chores too, without me needing to nag); we're easily affectionate with each other and give a lot of backrubs, cuddles, etc throughout the day (and all the other physical stuff is WONDERFUL too).
OK, now for the BUT: I used to feel, when we first got together, super...cherished? extremely secure? in his adoration for me, and very confident that he would ask me to marry him. I'm not sure where this confidence of mine came from initially, but it has withered recently. He's not very good at talking about emotional stuff/being vulnerable without making it a bit joke-y, which may be part of it. But I think maybe the other part is perhaps just a deeper incompatibility with me? I have a lot of problems with self-esteem, especially around my looks (here comes the pathetic part).
I used to be a Fat Kid, all through elementary>high school. I'm also pretty tall for a woman (almost 5'8") and brown, which was very unusual in my upper-middle-class NJ suburb, so my self-image on a bad day is basically that I'm a weird, huge, hairy ogre. When I left home for college, I lost a bunch of weight, both healthily (not being deep in the mix of a very highly angry and dysfunctional family meant I no longer needed food to soothe myself) and also unhealthily (tracked calories in/out to a crazy extent). I calmed down about that for the most part, and for the last few years, I've been in a weird spot where I try SO HARD to love my body--I am extremely healthy, pretty active, want to be body-positive, and also know the patriarchal, racist beauty standards in our culture are 100% garbage--and yet, even the smallest thing can send me right back into Ogre Mode. My mental image of myself is so warped that I truly can't tell what a "neutral observer" would think when they see me.
The other day, my boyfriend was talking to my little brother who was visiting us from out of town. He was semi-jokingly trying to convince him to come move out to where we live (the Bay Area), and one of the pros he mentioned was that "there are tons of hot girls out here" and that he personally encounters scads of hot girls just walking to and from his office. When I heard him say this, I felt myself crumple and die a little bit inside. He went on to be like "case in point, your sister!!!" but it didn't make me feel better. I understand that we're all human, have eyes, and there's TONS of attractive people in the world--and that seeing cute people on the street is one of the small joys in life, but I just couldn't handle hearing my boyfriend actually acknowledge it out loud in front of me.
This happened in close quarters to a sort-of-terrible conversation I tried to initiate about marriage, because it's been one of the things making me feel anxious lately: I told my boyfriend I love him and want to marry him, need to know how he feels about that, and also need him to know that I will be planning to move along if he doesn't make some sign for a deeper commitment with me within the next year or so, because I don't want to put my life on hold and be waiting around for something that will never happen. He told me that he definitely sees me in his future, but then went on to be like "is it Too Soon to be discussing this??". I should also mention that he was playing video games throughout this conversation, which was its own separate horror for me. I told him later I found that disrespectful, and he agreed and apologized. I'm still shocked I needed to explain that, though.
I haven't told my friends about this conversation, because it just felt so shitty and I don't want them to pity me/think of me as that horrible trope of the woman desperate to get hitched at All Costs to Any Old Guy.
I'd love any advice you might have about regaining my power and confidence after expressing a really vulnerable desire (I want to get married to you and count on a whole life with you) and having the answer be...not really what I wanted to hear. I feel ugly, old, insecure, and too obsessive about whether or not things will "work out" with my boyfriend, and I can tell that this is bleeding into the rest of my life/relationship/etc.
-Confused and maybe a lil ogre-ish
Everyone who is reading this letter needs to buckle the FUCK UP or pour an extra mug of PG Tips tea or whatever it is that you do when you’re about to read something long and strong because I am about to WRITE SOME THINGS.
There is so much to unpack here so I’m going to split things into sections, lest I forget something or go off too much on one topic and neglect something else:
Loving your body.
I have a whole essay I’m writing on this in my forthcoming (hopefully) book that I’m working on but the thesis is this: you do not need to love your body. BODIES SUCK SHIT. They don’t even work all of the time! Sometimes they just bleed!! Or cum! Or get sore even though you only did 4 lunges and that’s not very many lunges!!! And then we went and assigned WORTH to these stupid meat sacks which we have barely any control over. It’s like if all of us had a wild animal to be in charge of that we were then judged by and some people got like beautiful wild ponies with healthy long manes and some people got really aggressive deep sea fish with scary teeth and your whole life you were judged on that and you’re like I DON’T EVEN WANT THIS AGGRESSIVE DEEP SEA FISH, I DON’T EVEN HAVE STAKES IN OWNING THIS DEEP SEA FISH, but your whole life was weighed by the fact that you were carrying around the ugly (sorry) deep sea fish instead of a pretty pony and people were mean to you about it and you lost jobs because you got a fish that bites people (who knew fish would do that?!?!) at the beginning of your life and not a pony. And THEN to add insult to ugly deep sea fish someone keeps telling you, “just fall in love with the ugly deep sea fish that everyone is mean to you about.” That would be bullshit. (As a note, I’m not saying that YOUR body is the equivalent of a deep sea fish, I’m just saying this way of ranking people would be as stupid and arbitrary as what we’re currently doing with bodies).
It’s ok to be sad or ungrateful or pissed off about your body. You do not need to love your body in order to love yourself. You are not your body. You are a friend and a daughter and a girlfriend and a helper and a fashion icon or whatever the hell you are. You are not the meat sack you were randomly assigned at birth (ok, that’s not how genetics work, but you get it). Do not make loving your body the goal. That is very unfair to yourself in my opinion. Is your body lovable? HELL FUCKING YES OMG YES IT IS BANGING HOT AND I KNOW THAT EVEN WITHOUT A PHOTO BUT IF YOU SEND ME A PHOTO I WILL TELL YOU IN EXACTING DETAIL JUST HOW HOT YOU ARE. WHICH I AM SURE OF. Your body is lovable. But if you can’t muster up loving your body right now, that’s ok. If the best you can get to is body-neutrality or ignoring your body because if you think about your body too long it will Make You Sad, that’s fine. Sometimes on really bad body dysmorphia days I just say to myself, “Sophia, it is simply Not Your Business how you look. It’s not your business what your body looks like. Mind your business sweetie and go type a strongly worded letter to Spectrum Cable.” And then I try to go about my day and I give myself permission to not care, if possible. Even though I usually still do. Care that is.
Because the reality is that society tied bodies and worth together which is the most bullshit thing. So of course some days society will successfully trick you into thinking that your body sucks or that your body has a specific, quantifiable value. Of course some days the lie that your body is hateable will make sense to your brain. OF COURSE. Give yourself a break when those moments come. Remind yourself, if you can, that this is not a healthy or helpful thought, but that it does feel real to you right now. And then say, “OK, I’m going to go do something else for 7 minutes that has nothing to do with bodies.” Like play Oregon Trail or read a book or get a manicure or call your Nonna.
Being an ogre in general.
Look, I also grew up a Fat Kid and sometimes, because my brain is a LIAR she sometimes tells me that the earth shakes when I walk. Random times when I am doing Normal Things, she pops up and says, “wow, you walk really heavy like a giant. You should think about that all day.” This is not true and my thighs, while perfect, do not have that much power. So, I feel you deeply when you say you feel like an ogre; I get it. But Shrek had FOUR hit movies about him and TWO hit soundtracks about him and a a spin off series and TWO television specials and great best friend and a hot spouse and tons of weird internet porn inspired by him and that’s pretty damn good.
Somewhere along the line, you decided that marriage would mean that you are worthy and hot. I’m sorry to tell you the bad news, but that is not true because you are already worthy and hot. Sorry! A wedding will be very fun. Getting engaged will be very romantic. A marriage will be very fulfilling. But none of those things mean that you are a worthy, hot lady. They do not signify that your boyfriend Actually Loves You. They do not mean that Finally Someone Thinks You’re a Good Person. Marriage will not and cannot give you that. Marriage can give you legal and financial protections via the US government in a nice, easy package. That’s all marriage can actually give you out of thin air. The rest? You and your partner have to build, both together and separately, whether you ever get married or not. I know. It’s bullshit. If only getting married were a shortcut to self-adoration, we could just trick any old person into a marriage real fast and then beep boop beep SELF LOVE, BABBBBYYY. Marrying your partner will not make you happy or confident or worthy. Again. This is bullshit and I acknowledge that.
***DISCLAIMER***: It is normal and great that you want to get married. I do not think that you should “get over” this desire or suppress it or anything like that. I do not think it is small or petty or juvenile or consumer-driven or any other thing that we have told women it is to want to be married. You do not need to compromise on getting married one day if that is what you want. (You may have to compromise on the when or where or something else if you want it to be with this particular guy, and that’s totally fine). But marriage is wonderful, and wanting it does not make you vapid or silly or a cabbagehead. Just know it will not deliver validation which lasts forever to you on a silver platter—a fact which I’m sure you know logically, but might sometimes not remember in your heart. It will be the same you and the same him, but just…married.
Is your boyfriend The Right Person to Marry or not?
I don’t know. You don’t know. He does’t know. None of us knows. But what I do know from my position as the unmarried daughter of parents who have each been married four times is that the key to a good marriage is very simple: marry a good person and be a good person to be married to. There are people who will never be good to be married to. Never. They will always be abusive or miserable or sorta mean or unwilling to compromise or controlling or sexist or Republican (jk! kind of!).
An easy litmus test is: who do you want to be with on your worst day? The worst fucking day. The day when the dog you’ve had for ten years gets bone cancer. The day when your boss fires you for a mistake you didn’t even make. The day when you ate something weird at the state fair and now cannot stop shitting yourself in your uptight mother-in-law’s guest bedroom. Marry the person who makes those days bearable even when they are totally unacceptable to have to live through. Because anyone can be good when they’re going on nice dates and getting blown at least two times a month, usually more like four times a month. A lot of people can be a good partner before you guys have four-month-old triplets, two of whom have colic. Pick a person who is GOOD. Good to you, good to themselves, good to the people you love. Pick someone who is supportive and respectful and funny and sweet. Pick someone who is a good listener most of the time and if they mess up and play video games during a moment that was Very Important to you comes back and says, “You’re right; I’m sorry. Let’s have that discussion again so I know I heard what you wanted me to hear.” Maybe that’s your boyfriend, maybe it isn’t. And what a fucking curse it is for YOU to have to be the one to decide whether your boyfriend is The Right Person to Marry or not. Why can’t some magical wood nymph or a random guy from Ohio just leave a note on your porch one morning and let you know if this is the right person or not? Naturally, you are obsessing over this. This is something that, in my opinion, is very worth rumination.
But I want to give you what I hope will be some comfort: you are brilliant. You know what is good for you and what is bad for you, big picture. If this person were terrible terrible terrible for you, you would know in your gut. Now, is he good enough to marry forever and ever? Is he The Right One? You’ll never know until you live through an entire life with him. Short of doing that, all you can do is trust yourself. Trust that you’ll know what to do. Trust you’ll know anemic, insufficient love when you see it (and not just once or twice a year on a very bad day; I mean when it becomes a pattern). Trust that you’ll walk away if the relationship is more bad than good, even if it takes time to work up the courage to do so.
And even if you mess up, it’s ok. Nothing is permanent or damning. It’s never too late to realize, “this is not working, which is a shame because you’re very good at cunnilingus, but I must leave you.” It does not make you a fool or unlovable if you accidentally marry the wrong person one time. !!!!IT WAS ONE TIME!!!! (Or four times! Or eight!). It’s just life.
Validation & Security.
HERE WE GOoooooOooooOooooOOOOooO!!!!!!! The juicy Big Theme shit:
What it sounds like you need from your partner (and yourself) is not a ring or a proposal or a plaque that certifies that you are the Hottest Babe in All of the Bay Area or whatever. What you seem to need, but not know how to ask for is a bit more validation and security. THOSE ARE NORMAL THINGS TO NEED. DO NOT LET ANYONE MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE THOSE ARE BIG, UNREASONABLE ASKS. A big unreasonable ask is “I would like you to drive 47 miles away to purchase those artisan ice cream sandwiches I love so much and deliver them to me in bed every morning even though you will most certainly lose your job.” Security and affirmation are not in any way big asks from a partner. I will come gobble up anyone who tries to make you feel like those wants are needy or petty or less than— even if it is you trying to make yourself feel bad. I will come gobble you up. Like a real ogre.
I would suggest the very awkward but HIGHLY EFFECTIVE speech of, “Hello DreamMuffin— (I don’t know your boyfriend’s name so I’m assuming)—I love you so much, and I need something from you. I think I believed that if you asked me to marry you that would make me sure that you loved me to bits. And when I thought about it more, I realized that I’m simply feeling less than secure in our love, and it’s feeding my anxiety which has turned into a vicious cycle. So what I’m asking for is more validation from you, because I believe you do love me to bits. I’d like if you X, Y’ed and Z’ed me more.” (E.g., complimented me more, initiated sex, took me on dates, said I love you, wrote me cute post it notes, listened without distractions, helped actively plan for our future, hugged me when you got home). If he’s a great partner, which I assume he is, he will go, “LoveofMyLife, of course I will try to do this, even if it is quite hard for me.” And then he will try, and mess up and you’ll gently remind him (after accidentally freaking the fuck out once or twice about something totally unrelated and you don’t know why and then you remember!!!!! Yes!! I am a person who needs some validation in these specific ways. I will gently remind him!). Because this will be hard for him to learn, and you will both need to be easy on yourselves and each other. And time will go by and you’ll both work on communicating your needs together happily forever and ever. The end.
Or he’ll be a dipshit and won’t get it and won’t try to get it and you’ll Realize Some Things About Yourself and Your Relationship and do some hard work and make some hard changes. And if need be, you can write me another letter then and I’ll tell you more opinions I have, and I will roast the hell out of his ass for not stepping up when you asked for something so reasonable. Because, of course!!!!, you require a partner who wants to be with you longterm (with heavy doses and of security and validation) just as much as you want to be with them longterm. You do not want to be with someone who needs to be begged to demonstrate affection (reminded, coached, teased very lightly about, sure— but not begged).
You will find a person who loves you well. You will remind them when they forget because we all forget how to love people well. You will slowly let the idea that you are an Unloveable Ogre drift away from you so that it is not at the core of your self-conceptualization, even if it is always kind of hovering nearby, ready to take charge again. Some days, you will let this idea— that you are an Unloveable Ogre— drive the car. Oops. You have a busy week and you forgot to chase away that idea with a broom. But then you will remember, ah ah ah brain, not so fast! I have just remembered that I am not an Unloveable Ogre. I am a gem of a human and while I just remembered this I think I’ll go remind my hunky ass boyfriend that he needs to tell me that, too. Just for good measure.